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Behind the Scenes of Your Child's Assessment: How Pearson Keeps the Test Running Smoothly

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This is the second in a series of stories helping parents understand how their child’s assessments unfold before, during, and after the test. Other stories in this series include: a video about how tests are scored and how the tests are created in the first place.

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Assessing a Year's Worth of Learning

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This Spring, millions of children from New Mexico to Minnesota and Indiana to New Jersey, will sit in front of computer screens to take an exam that seeks to measure a year’s worth of learning.

At the same time, Jim Sherlock’s team will sit down in front of a multitude of screens at a quiet office park in Iowa City, Iowa. Jim is a former educator and one of hundreds of people who work behind the scenes to make sure the technology behind online assessments comes off without a hitch.

(See a profile of Jim and other team members below. Also below: an infographic about the "Myths and Facts About Assessments.")

Helpful Measurement

The results of these tests are important—they tell parents and educators how students are progressing in their education and provide valuable feedback about whether students are on track to earn the skills necessary for a good job and a better life.

In order to get the best feedback to parents and students, the assessments must run smoothly. That’s where Jim and his Application Performance Management team at Pearson’s Operation Command Center comes in.

Last spring, Pearson delivered more than 15 million online assessments with no downtime. Even during the spring semester, more than 1.2 million students per day take some form of online tests, from 7:30 am - 5:30 pm EDT.  Ensuring that students have a good testing experience requires a sophisticated network operations center.

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What Pearson Is Monitoring ...

The Command Center is a vital step in ensuring the smooth performance of assessments. Even small delays in testing—such as problems logging in or tests not loading properly--can cause major disruptions to a school day and student schedules.

For the Command Center group, it’s all about system performance on the test, not student performance. In fact, part of the team’s job is ensuring the systems are as secure as possible, so no one can see student information or disrupt testing in any way.

That’s why the Pearson Performance Management team collects more than 1.5 million metrics every 30 seconds from various servers, applications, and services nationwide. They are monitoring things such as website availability, with more than 800 simultaneous checks running from dozens of testing locations around the country.  They also study server load and bandwidth so thousands of students can test at the same time without overloading the system.

... And What Pearson Is Not Monitoring

But, there is one big thing the team isn’t seeing: individual student data. The team has no way to monitor which students are testing, test scores or any personal information about the students.

The Command Center staff can tell you the volume of children testing in a state at any given time, but they don’t know a child’s name, a location or how a child scored on the test.  They also don’t monitor social media.

“We invest more rigor and focus on software development quality than most of our peers,” says Jim Sherlock. “We meet with our computing partners every week, and they love talking with us because we stay on the cutting edge of  application performance management and end-user experience monitoring.”

Moving Online—and the Cloud

This year, Pearson estimates it will facilitate millions of online tests around the country. More and more states are moving to online testing because those tests are more engaging for students, they return faster results and better reflect learning in the classroom. For example, in states using the PARCC assessment, a full 90% of students will take the test online this year.

As more states move to online tests, more of those tests are hosted on the cloud.

“If you choose to go to the cloud, you need to be even more secure than a brick and mortar environment, ” says Jim Sherlock.

To achieve an advanced cloud solution that meets testing requirements, the Command Center’s software and customer support team works year-round. The team deploys new features and tests bandwidth and security so that millions of American students can take their tests on time.

It Takes Hundreds to Test Millions

From help desk and network monitoring to software development and quality assurance, the Command Center team engages in a wide variety of tasks to provide testing services to students. Meet some of the people making assessments run smoothly every day.

Jim started at Pearson working the help desk. He says the experience benefits his approach to operations and security, giving him a unique perspective on the two.

Before his current role, he managed the operations center for 7 years.

Jim got a Masters in Education, and wanted to teach. He ended up working for the Department of Defense doing network security. When he moved back to Iowa, he merged his love for education and technology by joining the Pearson team.

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Jerry certifies that Pearson complies with security requirements. He also makes sure that the assessments are up and running 24/7.

Jerry is a reservist in the U.S. Army where he serves as a captain. Since he’s been at Pearson, Jerry has been deployed to Afghanistan, Latin America and Korea.

He’s also a proud owner of a Commodore 64, a computer that dates back to 1982 that he himself made when he was a kid—which you can see in his photograph.

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Vani says working in the tech operations group gives her a great sense of teamwork and collaboration. She says the tech ops team is on the forefront of technology. They are the first to test a new technology, and, once they have a secure use for the tool, they move it out across the system.

Vani got her electrical engineering degree in India. She came to America to work for a client, General Electric. After a while she got married and had kids. When her husband got a job at Pearson, she moved with him to Iowa and got a job at the same facility. The two work for different teams, but they make sure to see each other every day at lunch.

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Chris is part of the monitoring team in the operations center. He guarantees that all of the systems are running in proper order.

Chris started with Pearson nine years ago as a test scorer, straight out of the University of Iowa. He got his bachelor’s degree in Industrial Engineering.

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Bin ensures new deployments go smoothly by making sure that replication and data flow between databases works seamlessly.

He enjoys learning the latest technology developments, like cloud-based deployments and open source tools.

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Judah makes sure apps for the students and teachers using the Pearson online system perform perfectly.

He likes working at Pearson because of its commitment to quality IT services.

Judah received a BS in Statistics and Computer Science from the University of Iowa and is currently earning a masters.

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Ashley manages projects across the operations center team. She ensures that teams stay on task and that they are communicating well among themselves—and with clients on the outside.

Her group focuses on infrastructure to make sure products are ready for customers.


 

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Our series on assessments:

Part 1: 5 Steps to Developing Fair and Accurate Tests

Part II: Behind the Scenes of Your Child's Assessment: How Pearson Keeps the Test Running Smoothly

Part III: Assessment Series Part III: A video explainer of how Pearson does its assessments.